Carpet designer travels the world for inspiration but never strays far from her beloved Caribbean.
From the very moment you step through those glass-fronted mahogany doors into her sunny brownstone, on a cool street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, you know you have touched down in a sort of creative epicentre—a beautiful and well-articulated universe.
You’ll immediately want to cast off your shoes at the door to Malene (say May-lay-nee) Barnett’s home, and experience the pleasure of plunging both feet into her hand-crafted silk and wool rugs. To touch the luxury of her art underfoot is just as important as beholding the imagery in her designs.
“Malene B” is her distinctive brand, and her contemporary approach to carpet design is startlingly new, straddling modern designs with centuries-old Nepalese handloom weaving traditions. At the heart of her work is a raw, simple elegance but it shouldn’t be taken lightly, her designs stem from an almost forensic enquiry into every facet of culture— be it the desert palaces of Rajasthan or the old mas Carnival costumes of Trinidad and Tobago; sure enough, like all great art, B’s carpets can take you anywhere.
“I have a fascination with textiles,” explains B, “when it comes to clothing— how we were dressing 50-60 years ago, I’ll look at how those clothes were made, do they have a certain embroidery stitch? How are the fabrics folding, then I’ll look even closer at patterns, then I’ll take all that information and create a carpet design”
And what was generated most recently from this process of deep looking are sprawling souvenirs of her beloved Caribbean, quoted in rugs of silks and fine wool. There’s a bias in her designs toward the landscape of her heritage—Sion Hill, on the beautiful and verdure island of St Vincent is the epigraph to B’s most recent collection.
“The turquoise water, the ocean—that will always be my number one source for inspiration. I find that shade of turquoise very calming, when I see that colour I just can’t be sad, And, of course with nature,” she adds, thoughtfully, “you see the green of the land, the trees, the fruit, the vegetables, houses painted in bright pastels set against the sun, then the people; every conceivable shade of brown, it’s the most perfect and amazing combination. I never have to think or search. I take a picture and there’s my colour palette.”
Without exception, you’ll be enthralled by designs that have the ability to transmit sunbeams that reach deep into the bottom of the ocean. In “Splash,” a design based on B’s long-standing romance with the Caribbean Sea, she uses every shade of blue, capturing the depths of the ocean, as if viewed from above. The dyed silk yarn reveals light and dark, blended together through a stippling technique to create shade and highlights of sea foam and atomic splashes of water infused with sunlight, shimmering, winking back at you from the surface of the ocean.
B’s style of imaging seems in some way to have a personality of its own, colours brushed in different directions by an invisible light source. These optically rich designs are charismatic and nuanced.
Malene Barnett was born in America, raised by a single woman with pianist’s hands who loved music and making things. Her mother embroiled her daughter in every one of her crafting exploits from decorating cakes to macrame. And it’s as if her mother foreshadowed the life her daughter would live and so pledged her to the world.
“When we were kids we always travelled a lot, even though my parents were divorced—my mother she took us on trips to the islands and different places, so I had the influence of the seeing the world at a very early age.” Understanding her background and its African-ness, through arts and textiles informed the global aesthetic that has always been her passion.
Her designs are uninhibited by boundaries of land or sea, and she claims a belonging to every inch of the world. Before embarking alone on an expedition in search of culture, covering no less than seven countries, B studied art and photography at State University of New York at Purchase.
“I was like, I don’t want to be a starving artist,” she says, with a laugh. “I needed to find something that generated money, so I transferred to the Fashion Institute of Technology to study fashion illustration because I loved to draw and I loved fashion. Now, I wasn’t the best, but I learnt I was good at colour and pattern and texture. I walked the halls and discovered textile design and I applied and enrolled in a bachelor of fine art programme. That is where I discovered carpet design, and this is where I was able to merge all my talents; I was able to paint, able to draw and able to create a product that people could use as functional art. Once I discovered it, I said this will be my niche.”
You can see Malene B’s early training in fine art; it is the filter through which her pictorial intelligence is expressed. But her business acumen was acquired by closely watching her mother do more than just “make and sell.”
“My mother was also an educator for 30 years, she lived a very conservative, safe life, but she lived the way that she lived so I could do what I’m doing, I truly believe that. She came to this country when she was 19, no money, but she paid for all three of us to go through college.”
Manufacturing her carpets by hand in Nepal and sourcing heirloom floor tiles from Mexico and a range of wallpaper made in the United States, B says this is just the beginning. “The plan is to extend the brand, to build partnerships here and in the Caribbean. This year, I introduced pillows embroidered on cotton velvet. I want to partner with different manufacturers to develop collections; dinnerware, clothing down the line, even food related, spices, a whole lifestyle brand. I design patterns and they can be applied to anything.”
The question need not arise about if and how her empire will thrive. Malene B’s already rolled out the red carpet. “I’m celebrating you. Whether you’ve been to the Caribbean or not, I want you to see the pride that I have in my work and how it relates to my culture.” M